Bedrooms in the Middle Ages
A peaceful night in your own bed is a comparatively recent invention. Over the centuries, the places and objects that we use to sleep have evolved dramatically.
The smoke from a dying fire billows up in clouds towards the vaulted ceiling, its smell mingling with those of food and the sleeping bodies scattered throughout the hall. Icy drafts from the ill-fitting windows and doors cut through the air. A thin layer of rushes and straw insulates your body from the cold stone floor, while a stump of wood supports your head. This is not some extreme outward-bound adventure holiday. In the Middle Ages, this is the way you sleep every night.
These days, we all take our comfortable beds and bedrooms for granted. So it’s easy to forget that the private, personal space of the modern bedroom has not been around for very long. Until the 19th century, most bedrooms were communal multi-purpose areas: equally likely to be used for eating, doing business and socialising as they were for sleeping. Bedding was a simple affair of hay or straw stuffed into a sack, supplemented by a blanket or cloak. And the idea of being able to close the door on the outside world was a completely alien concept.
In the communal societies of the Middle Ages, the very notion of privacy simply did not exist. For ordinary people in the great houses of the time, all the day’s – and the night’s – activities took place in public, in the great hall. When darkness fell, everyone would lie down on the rushes that covered the floor and sleep around the embers of the central fireplace. Instructions have survived from 1452 for stuffing a huge bed sack nine feet long and seven feet wide – the origin of the expressions “hitting the hay” and “hitting the sack”.
Although the lord and lady of the house enjoyed slightly more seclusion, their bedroom habits in no way resembled those of today. The bedchamber was a kind of medieval VIP lounge, in which only favoured family, close friends and servants would have been invited to stay and sleep. It was a place of high status, but a world apart from the cosy personal spaces we now take for granted. So next time you think your bedroom could use a little extra something, remember that you are enjoying a level of luxury that was unheard of even for kings and queens!